Do these chosen books really define Ireland?
Non-Fiction: The Books That Define Ireland Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin Merrion, tpbk, €19.95, 274pages
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Atitle is a promise, which can either be kept or broken, and some contain bigger promises than others. As titles go, they don't come much more emphatic than The Books That Define Ireland. The ubiquitous alien landing his spaceship on these shores and picking such a book off the shelf should reasonably be expected, by the time he's finished the final chapter, to have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the country which he's visiting. Otherwise he's been misled and should demand a refund.
What would said alien conclude from this book? Probably that Ireland is a violent, priest-ridden, politics-obsessed hole full of cute hoors and corrupt politicians. Those things have certainly been a part of the country's experience, but do they really define what Ireland is? It sounds more like a caricature of Irishness dreamed up by its enemies.
The problem is that the authors of this volume – UCD professors of social studies and politics respectively – draw their selection of over 30 allegedly definitive books from too narrow a range. They admit as much in the introduction: "Each of us trawled through the historical and social literature of the island . . . both of us are historically-minded social scientists."
They're not kidding. The focus of the book is heavily skewed towards politics, sociology and the past – as reflected in its original, and much more appropriate, title, 'Irish Arguments'. For a publication which claims to define Ireland, it also contains a startling number of works of which most readers will surely never have heard. Andrew Dunleavy's The Catechism Of Christian Doctrine (1742)? Paul Blanshard's The Irish And Catholic Power: An American Interpretation (1954)?
These sound more like items from the bibliography of a scholarly work, rather than books which Irish people were reading and absorbing into their souls at the time, much less enjoying. The press release issued with this book self-depreciatingly acknowledges this bias towards the factual: "Wha! No Joyce! No Beckett! No O'Casey?" But acknowledging the omissions doesn't rectify them, it merely makes them more frustrating, as if publishers Merrion (an imprint of the Irish Academic Press) knew that a mistake was being made but chose to make it anyway by giving the book a catchy, more sellable title which the content in no way justifies.
The real problem with this book, though, is its unrelenting negativity. In the final chapter, the authors make their position clear by quoting Buck Mulligan's exclamation to Stephen Daedelus in Ulysses that Ireland needs to be "Hellenised". "Ireland has indeed come to resemble Greece," they declare, "but not the classical Greece the young men dreamed of, rather the modern one of tax-dodgers and bribery."
Ireland is far from perfect, but the idea that our problems are in any way comparable to a country like Greece, which ranks alongside El Salvador and Burkina Faso in international tables of corruption, is hard to defend in a book that claims to "define" what the country is about.
There's more to Irish life than bribery. Poetry has been hugely important in shaping Ireland's sense of itself, but it scarcely gets a mention. Seamus Heaney only appears to comment on Daniel Corkery's contentious Hidden Ireland, and Nell McCafferty is deemed more important than Patrick Kavanagh. Thomas Kinsella isn't mentioned at all. Humour too is largely absent. The chapter on short story writer Frank O'Connor never really gets to grips with his humour, treating it almost as an incidental detail. There are only two passing references to the GAA. A book which claims to define Ireland but doesn't feature sport isn't trying.
The Irish language is under-represented. There are only five references in the index to the national tongue, as against seven for "sociology".
As for women, forget them. The authors certainly did. Only four female authors are deemed worthy of an appearance – three of them for volumes about child abuse, the Catholic Church, and, yes, corruption again – against 27 men.
Edna O'Brien's seminal first novel The Country Girls even has to share a chapter with John McGahern's The Dark, whereas CS Andrews' largely-forgotten Dublin Made Me has a chapter all to itself. It's hard to make a case that this balance is correct.
There's nothing on Irish folklore. Nothing on Irish music. Nothing on the visual arts, whether Celtic or modern, or the Irish landscape. The book ignores the recent Celtic Tiger experience – which certainly did change Ireland, for better or worse – except insofar as it relates to politics.
It's simply not possible to define a country whilst ignoring its central creative talents. Writers create myths and then the myths come true. Yeats and Lady Gregory set about, through the Celtic Revival, to give shape to a sense of national identity and collective consciousness. Where are they? Playing second fiddle to Fintan O'Toole, who gets a full chapter, is the depressing answer. That really does say it all.
The titles featured in The Books That Define Ireland:
* Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn/The History of Ireland (1634)
* William Molyneux, The case of Ireland being bound by Acts of Parliament in England (1698)
* Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)
* Andrew Dunleavy, The Catechism of Christian Doctrine (1742)
* William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), The Autobiography of Wolfe Tone (1826)
* John Mitchel, The Jail Journal (1861)
* Horace Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century (1904)
* Michael O'Riordan, Catholicity and Progress in Ireland (1905)
* James Connolly, Labour in Irish History (1910)
* Patrick A Sheehan, The Graves at Kilmorna (1913)
* Desmond Ryan, Collected Works of Pádraic A Pearse (1917)
* Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland (1924)
* P. S. O'Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Féin: How it Won It and How It Used It (1924)
* Tomás O Criomhthain, An tOileánach/The Islandman (1929)
* Frank O'Connor, Guests of the Nation (1931)
* Sean O'Faoláin, King of the Beggars (1938)
* Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
* James Kavanagh, Manual of Social Ethics (1954)
* Paul Blanshard, The Irish and Catholic Power (1954).
* Michael Sheehy, Divided We Stand (1955).
* Edna O'Brien, The Country Girls (1960)
* John McGahern, The Dark (1965)
* Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger (1962)
* Conor Cruise O'Brien, States of Ireland (1972)
* A T Q Stewart, The Narrow Ground (1977)
* C S Andrews, Dublin Made Me (1979)
* Nell McCafferty, A Woman to Blame; The Kerry Babies Case (1985)
* Noel Browne, Against the Tide (1985)
* Fintan O'Toole, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch: The Politics of Irish Beef (1995)
* Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools (1999)
* Elaine A Byrne, Political Corruption in Ireland: A Crooked Harp? (2012)
Our top six books
We can think of many more. . . but here are six books that really do define Ireland:
JAMES JOYCE: Dubliners
If the Irish in 1914 thought of their capital as a provincial backwater, Joyce set out to show them how wrong they were in a series of works revealing a Dublin as big as the world and shimmering with symbolism.
ELIZABETH BOWEN: The Last September
Big houses. Well-heeled country folk in tweeds. Horses. Sir This and Lady That. What would modern Ireland be without its Anglo-Irish heritage? A better place, according to Brendan Behan. He was wrong.
OSCAR WILDE: The Picture Of Dorian Gray
The Irish are known worldwide as legendary wits and raconteurs. We don't even have to do anything to earn the accolade, as Saint Oscar did all the work for us. We've been living off his dazzling reputation ever since.
LADY GREGORY: Gods And Fighting Men
Greeks had The Iliad. The English had King Arthur. Lady G reconnected the Irish to a sense of ancient identity through these timeless yarns. Romantic Ireland will never be dead and gone while the Tuatha live on.
TIM ROBINSON: Stones Of Aran
No one has subjected the Irish landscape to a more forensic or celebratory scrutiny than the English-born, Connemara-based cartographer. Robinson makes us see that every inch and acre is worth a long, hard look.
RODDY DOYLE: The Barrytown Trilogy
Bawdy, foul-mouthed, iconoclastic, fiercely passionate and alive, Doyle treated the Irish working class absolutely on its own terms rather than as the subject of patronising sociological study or middle-class pity.